“Dead. Real Dead.” That was the verdict by then-House Speaker John Boehner on President Barack Obama’s proposal to impose higher dividend and capital gains taxes on the wealthy.
But it could just have easily applied to most of the other priorities the president discussed in last year’s State of the Union address: free community college, a higher minimum wage, seven days of paid sick leave, authorization to use force against the Islamic State group. They made no progress in the halls of Congress.
No doubt, Obama had numerous high-profile victories in 2015. He got Republicans in Congress to go along with more spending, killed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and his health care law lives on despite Republican-led efforts to repeal it. He also secured international agreements designed to curb global warming and stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
But efforts that required congressional cooperation often proved DOA. Instead, White House officials are left pointing to efforts outside of Washington to make the case that Obama’s priorities are rubbing off with the public.
For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures says 14 states began the new year with higher minimum wages. Of those, a dozen states increased their rates through legislation while two states automatically increased their rates based on the cost of living.
And Oregon became the fourth state to mandate that employers provide paid sick leave. Obama issued an executive order that requires federal contractors to do the same for their workers.
“The president is acutely aware that change doesn’t always start in Washington,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
Obama will go before Congress on Tuesday night with his final State of the Union speech and prospects are bleak for big agreements. For one thing, it’s a presidential and congressional election year driven by sharp partisanship.
Lawmakers will be spending as much time as they can back in their states and districts, and will seek to avoid taking on anything that could cost them votes in November. GOP lawmakers, for example, overwhelmingly put themselves in the free trade camp, yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing to delay any vote on the trade-liberalizing Trans-Pacific Partnership until after the election.
Over the years, Obama has returned to familiar themes. He has pushed for higher taxes for the wealthy and using some of the revenue to pay for tax breaks for the middle class. He has often sought more money for education and infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges.
In 2015, Congress declined to increase the capital gains and dividend rates that Obama called for with the wealthiest families. Nor did it approve a fee on large, highly leveraged financial institutions to discourage excessive borrowing. But it did make permanent tax breaks that Obama had sought for low-income workers and families as well as families with members attending college.
Republicans dismissed the proposal for free junior college, saying it was too expensive and a better option would be to increase access to Pell grants by streamlining the application process.
And on the minimum wage, lawmakers said an increase nationally would eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs for students and lower-skilled workers.
Despite the congressional opposition to forcing companies to provide paid sick leave, Obama got a bit of his way. He issued an executive order on Labor Day that requires federal contractors to provide paid sick leave — one hour for every 30 hours the employees work. Stretched out over 12 months, that’s up to seven days per year. The order will allow employees to use the leave to care for sick relatives as well, and will affect contracts starting in 2017 — just as Obama leaves office.
For several years now, Republicans have blocked an election-year ritual for Democratic lawmakers: legislation to narrow the pay gap between men and women. And when the GOP took control of both chambers of Congress, prospects for passage got even steeper. But that didn’t deter Obama from making another pitch.
The results were predictable: legislation entitled the Paycheck Fairness Act has yet to make it out of a committee.
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